Last Updated on March 25, 2021
The past year has been severely challenging for many people. COVID-19 has prompted social isolation, unemployment, and financial hardship. People have been managing the fear and anxiety caused by a new disease, abrupt life changes, and an unpredictable future. Meanwhile, periods of quarantine and “shelter in place” have brought families into close quarters and left others on their own, creating additional tension and stress.
Taken together, these issues add up to a looming mental health crisis, and many Americans have been turning to alcohol to soothe feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety. According to the Associated Press, alcohol sales increased 55% in mid-March 2020, compared with the previous year.
It seems as good a time as any to address the relationship between alcohol and mental health, and what you need to know. Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common mental health issues during crises like COVID-19, and the effects of alcohol on each.
The Connection Between Alcohol and Mental Health
Alcohol has a complicated relationship with mood disorders and mental health. Drinking can ease some of the worst symptoms of many disorders in the short term, and as a result many people use it to self-medicate. Alcohol’s widespread availability also makes it an enticing solution, especially for those who don’t have easy access to mental healthcare.
However, as we’ll explore below, alcohol tends to make many disorders worse in the long run. The very same chemical impacts that help it soothe you in the moment can create imbalances that lead to dependence, or amplify depression, anxiety, and stress. In some cases, chronic alcohol use can even create issues where there weren’t any before.
Alcohol and Depression
Depression is a classic example of how drinking can make mental health issues worse. Self-medicating depression with alcohol would seem to be very common. A majority of people who enter treatment for alcohol problems score high on depression rating scales. People who experience “major depressive episodes” may also be twice as likely to develop alcohol addiction.
On closer examination, however, things become more complicated. Some of the same research also shows that heavy drinking doubles your chances of developing depression. Many also experience an improvement in depression symptoms after quitting drinking.
It turns out that alcohol can actually make you more depressed, especially if you drink frequently. In the short term, alcohol floods your brain with endorphins, depresses your nervous system, and boosts “feel-good” body chemicals like serotonin. But long-term, it seems to do the exact opposite, reducing your serotonin levels and increasing feelings of fatigue, depression, low self-esteem, and more.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, alcohol can interact negatively with many common antidepressant medications. If you’re experiencing depression and looking for effective treatment, you’re probably better off steering clear of the booze.
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Alcohol and Anxiety
Anxiety and alcohol also have a close relationship. And as with depression, it seems to be a two-way street.
As mentioned above, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Essentially, it imitates the chemicals that calm your nervous system down, while depressing the ones that ramp it up. This can help you feel relaxed in the short term. But as soon as the buzz wears off, drinking often has the opposite effect.
This is the reason many people experience “hanxiety” the morning after. Until your system rebalances itself and produces enough of its own chemicals again, you’re left in an anxious, uneasy state. This generally wears off in a few hours. But if you drink chronically, this problem can become much worse. Your body can get so used to having alcohol to regulate itself, that it stops doing it on its own.
Needless to say, this can lead to becoming dependent on alcohol, and the stats back this up. Rates of anxiety are twice as high in people with alcohol use disorder. If you struggle with anxiety, stopping drinking may actually be one of the best ways to improve the problem.
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Alcohol and Stress
Similarly to depression and anxiety, drinking can reduce stress in the short term, while causing long-term imbalances in your body chemistry. Stress hormones can also make you more likely to develop addictive behavior.
To begin with, alcohol is literally stressful for your body to process. You may be able to forget the parts of your life that are causing you tension when you drink. But behind the scenes, your body is working extra hard. This can actually extend your stress response, and if you drink frequently, prevent your body from returning to a healthy “baseline.” This can contribute to chronic stress, and even alcohol dependence.
Then there’s the relationship of alcohol to the stress hormone cortisol. It appears that higher cortisol levels mean a reduced ability to experience pleasure. The result may be that you need to drink more to achieve the same effect. Cortisol also encourages habit-based learning, which may put you at higher risk for becoming addicted if you drink to reduce stress.
Finally, some studies suggest that heavy drinking can actually permanently alter your stress response, making you more sensitive to stress even after you’ve quit. All in all, alcohol and stress appear to be a bad combination.
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Alcohol and Insomnia
Feeding into all of the above issues is the problem of alcohol and sleep. Lack of rest and overall fatigue can contribute to stress, depression, anxiety, and a whole slew of other health problems both mental and physical.
Many people turn to alcohol to help them get to bed, and it’s true that a nightcap can help you doze off more easily. But things get more complicated if you’ve had more than one drink. While you are sleeping, your body continues to process the alcohol you’ve consumed, which breaks down into many toxic chemicals. A small amount won’t disturb your rest. But the more you’ve had, the more likely it is you’ll wake up after a few hours, or begin to sleep fitfully.
This is especially relevant because your body goes through different phases of rest during the night. “Slow-wave” sleep, which is associated with repairs to your physical body, seems unaffected by alcohol. But “REM” sleep seems to be disturbed when you drink before bed. Since this is when your mind gets its rest and repair time, too many “nightcaps” may actually contribute to mental fatigue.
In other words, excessive alcohol consumption can actually worsen insomnia, affecting your overall mental health. If difficult times are keeping you up at night, consider alternatives like melatonin or valerian to help you get some shut-eye.
Read More: Alcohol and Sleep
Solutions for Mental Health and Alcohol Abuse
There’s no doubt that the impacts of COVID-19 have caused a wave of mental health issues across the country. And it’s also true that many people are turning to alcohol to manage problems like depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia. If you’re struggling with both mental health and substance abuse, this may be a daunting time to try to tackle the problem, especially since it’s usually best to treat both issues at once.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever before to treat these problems without having to leave your house. Many telemedicine apps now offer access to therapists via your smartphone—often at more affordable rates than going to an office.
The same is true of alcohol abuse. Online programs such as Ria Health now offer comprehensive alcohol treatment from home, including anti-craving medication, recovery coaching, digital tracking tools, digital support groups, and more.
If you find yourself drinking more than you’d like during social isolation, or struggling with old habits during a time of high anxiety, Ria may be able to help. Schedule a call with a member of our team today to learn more about our program.